The Howling Terror

A figure with a megaphone terrifies the people of Sussex

In July 1900 the tranquility of Devil’s Dyke was shattered by a distorted mix of human and mechanical sound that had never been heard. It boomed over the South Downs and was nicknamed the Howling Terror.

One tranquil day in July 1900 terror suddenly came to the good people of Sussex, as a sound never heard before came hurtling over the South Downs.

The newspapers nicknamed it The Howling Terror and compared it to the work of the Devil.

In panic, the press predicted that this demonic invention would come to dominate the then new 20th century.

However, what the locals were hearing was nothing diabolical. It was a human voice amplified to deafening levels by a giant megaphone placed on top of Devil's Dyke.

At that time Victorian tourists were flocking to the fun and thrills of many magnificent mechanical and engineering feats at Devil's Dyke amusement park.

Yet, for people still living in an age still without radio and loudspeakers, it must have been truly terrifying to hear such a sound for the first time.

Bells and birdsong formed much of the background noise of people's lives and the megaphone's capacity to allow a voice to be heard for miles around took on mythical proportions.

Victorian inventors make a noise

This early experiment in sound manipulation was the work of a self-styled scientific expert and engineer called Horace L Short.

He had an acoustic laboratory in Hove, where he focused his engineering ideas into creating his amplifyer.

The experiment at Devil's Dyke was a part of Mr Short's work to perfect his sound amplifyer with the representative of American Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph and light bulb.

Eventually, a smaller version of the megaphone became commercially available before being modified into one of the most successful loudspeakers of the acoustic age.

Mr Short continued to enjoy success with his inventions and, together with his two brothers, went on to found the pioneering aerospace company Shorts that is now a subsidiary of the transportation and aerospace company Bombadier.

We now know that the jounalists writing about The Howling Terror were right. Sound amplifyers did come to dominate twentieth-century technology and although not considered the work of the Devil, loudspeakers might not have found their way into millions of homes without Devil's Dyke.